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There Was a Little Part of David Crosby in All of Us, Whether We Knew It or Not

In my many years of seeing live music, few sights were as dispiriting as the first time I saw David Crosby up close. In the early Eighties, he played a solo show at New York’s Town Hall. Walking onstage, looking a little overweight, unkempt and shaggy in an untucked shirt and baggy pants, he plopped down on a wooden chair. His voice was a bit raspier than we’d heard on his records, and the blissed-out smiles and stage patter he was known for were MIA. At one point, he yawned and looked at his watch, as if he were prepping for a nap. In those way-pre-Internet days, no one knew what was happening with anyone. But when it was revealed a short while later that he was a serious drug addict, the performance made a sad amount of sense.

So when Crosby died last week, at 81, the news was both shocking and not. One of rock’s legendary libertines, he’d packed several lifetimes’ worth of adventure and misadventure into those eight decades — including, not long after the show I saw, nine months in jail for drug possession.

It’s become standard lore that Crosby’s downfall embodied the dark side of the indulgences of his generation. That’s all true. But looking back over his life, another thought occurs: Whether we wanted to admit it or not, many of us wanted to be David Crosby, or someone like him. It just depended on which David Crosby you wanted to be.

Even now, his outlaw exploits sometimes overshadow his music. All these decades later, it’s still hard to convey how unusual and otherworldly it felt to hear “Guinnevere” (sometimes spelled with only one N) for the first time. The two songs that preceded it on Crosby, Stills & Nash — Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and Nash’s “Marrakesh Express” — had received pop-radio play, but then came Crosby’s first contribution: no drums, no chorus per se, seemingly a few different time signatures, harmonies as still as a frozen lake. When I later bought a songbook of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sheet music and tried to play it — and “Déjà vu,” from the first CSNY album — I was hitting the right chords. But even using an instrument that had six strings, and not the 12 he preferred, my amateurish picking didn’t sound remotely like what was on the record. How did he do that? (Open tunings, it turned out.)

Crosby was never seen as much of a musical innovative as his peers, like Hendrix or the multi-instrumentalist Stills. But as heard in “Guinnevere” and much more, he was at the forefront of pushing and pulling rock in directions it hadn’t explored before. This was someone who grew up on jazz and Bach, not Chuck Berry, and the songs he crafted — for the Byrds, CSN, CSNY, and on his own — were often idiosyncratic, unconventional or downright weird. His early co-writes with the Byrds, like “Wait and See,” were firmly in the folk-rock vein, but he left all that behind soon enough, opting for the tumbling joy of “Lady Friend,” the seductive yearning of “It Happens Each Day,” the hippies-in-the-Olde-World feel of “Renaissance Fair,” the penetrating starkness of “Everybody’s Been Burned,” and, of course, the notorious “Triad.”

Those songs, and the very earliest CSNY ones like “Long Time Gone,” his anguished response to Robert Kennedy’s assassination, were the ones largely cited in the wake of his death. He never quite returned to the jangle of the Byrds, but especially in the wake of his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident in 1969, his music took another turn. He seemed less interested in cranking out sing-along acoustic pop odes to highways and sunshine (the type that landed other troubadours on AM radio at the time) and more invested in songs that conveyed his own confusion, numbness, and lack of direction. So we had albums like dreamlike If I Could Only Remember My Name, which didn’t adhere to anyone’s concept of what a pop or CSNY-connected album should be, and a series of songs throughout the Seventies and early Eighties that conveyed a benumbed stateliness: “Where Will I Be,” “Page 43,” “Carry Me,” “Whole Cloth,” “Homeward Through the Haze,” “Bittersweet,” “Delta.” Even after Crosby was sober and settled, it was a sound and sensibility he picked up later in his career, during the striking string of albums he made in the last decade, especially 2016’s Lighthouse.

And then there are all the great little moments throughout his career. The self-mocking chuckle he inserts in CSN’s “Anything at All,” in which he busts his own pomposity. The silly spoken bit before “Marrakesh Express.” The choir-bad-boy harmonies he would add to Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” or “For Everyman” or his Byrd bandmate Roger McGuinn’s version of “The Water Is Wide.” His rant about the Warren Commission at the Monterey Pop festival. The hilarious in-studio argument with the Byrds during the making of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, immortalized on the deluxe CD of that record, in which Crosby constantly busts drummer Mike Clarke for not attaining the right feel of what would become “Dolphin’s Smile.” (“Try playing right,” Crosby scolds.)

As that tape revealed, Crosby never made it easy on anyone, including himself. He could be cranky, a self-admitted egomaniac and wary. If he didn’t know you, he could greet you with a wary expression of someone who felt he’d been taken advantage of. He was also a natural-born contrarian. At one point, when I was interviewing him for my biography of CSNY, I asked him to elaborate on “Homeward Through the Haze” and its opening line, which he had said in his own box set was about the first time CSNY was slagged by the press. “No, it’s about L.A.,” he shot back. I pressed again. “No, man, it’s about L.A.,” he said, growing more irritated. I wanted to say: But you said it was also about that other matter in your own words. But I let it go. Later I wondered if that was just a hint of the obstinate side of him that would often drive bandmates away.

But all you had to do was offer a sincere compliment about something he’d done — like his beloved If I Could Only Remember My Name — and he’d flash that crinkly, mischievous smile, the drawbridge would open and the gabbing would begin. He also could bust on himself in ways that were utterly endearing. Another time we met, during rehearsals for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concerts in 2009, RS had just published an interview I’d done in which he referred to himself as “old and creepy.” He immediately quoted that line back — and then laughed at how funny it was. 

Of course, the appeal of pop stars isn’t always about the music, and that was the case with Crosby. Each man in CSNY was an archetype to whom their fans could relate in one way or another. Croz was the bad boy, the rebel, and we were able to live vicariously through him. Without always thinking of the consequences, he seemed to do and say whatever he wanted, unconstrained by the laws or morality of the time. Not for him the media reticence of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, or Bob Dylan. Put a microphone and tape recorder in front of him, and he was happy to expound on the planet, the music business he detested, musicians (and politicians) he loved and dismissed. 

I sensed that the first time I ever talked to him, many years ago, when he was in New York promoting his first memoir, the aptly titled Long Time Gone. In his hotel room, a little tired from having been up since dawn to do morning TV, he dutifully plugged the book. When I asked about the just-completed but still unheard CSNY reunion album, and how old fans might find comfort in the fact that they were all in good health, he snorted, “Well, some of us are” — not quite the rah-rah promotion his record company would have wanted to hear. For those sorts of comments, he paid all sorts of prices, in terms of his career, health, and relationships. But who wouldn’t want to let it fly like that without a seeming care in the world? 

That extended to Twitter, where that part of his personality found a fresh outlet. There, an entirely new generation, two or three times removed from his, got to see that side of him all over again — which meant dissing Ye, the Doors, and even Phoebe Bridgers. (How ironic that, on the day he died, Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker announced they were reconvening their own, new-gen supergroup.) But based on the buzz around his tweets, plenty of people, even those who probably didn’t know much about him, found it all … refreshing? His passing last week, feels like the end of an era for music — any hopes for even a one-off CSN or CSNY reunion show are now  gone forever — but also for a degree of nonconformity.

The other part of Crosby’s legacy — the part you may have also admired — was the least likely one. In his twilight years, he became something else entirely — a genuinely and surprisingly inspirational figure.

Starting about a decade ago, with CSNY in tatters seemingly for good this time, Crosby became rock’s least likely late bloomer. By then, he was grappling with a list of health issues that included a liver transplant, diabetes, and heart complications. In nearly every interview he gave, including ones with RS, he’d refer to the short amount of time he likely had left on the planet — which kicks in for everybody at some point in their lives.

Rock & roll is now entering a period we’ve never seen before: musicians in their seventies and eighties, not just touring but in some cases still writing new material. Dylan and Young are prominent examples — but so was Crosby. Desperate to make up for his lost years, he began making an almost annual album of new songs over the last decade, and once again taking rock where it hadn’t been before — letting us know what was on the mind of an 80-year-old rocker. His joy at making new music — happily playing tapes of new, unreleased songs to anyone who would listen, including me once — was undeniable. The week he died, he was already planning the set list for a comeback show in California, and another album was apparently underway. Suddenly you wanted to be that guy in your later life.

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The last time I saw him in person, in late 2018, he was touring with the relative youngsters (Michelle Willis, Becca Stevens, and Michael League) in the Lighthouse Band, and the contrast to that Eighties show couldn’t have been more apparent. At a meet-and-greet with fans after a performance at the Capitol Theatre in Port Washington, New York, Crosby, with his long, wispy white strands of hair, looked like a wrung-out Santa after one very long night on the job. He expressed sadness that the Lighthouse Band, which had helped him tap back into the ethereal part of his music, wouldn’t be doing another show for a long while. (A recording of that show was released just a few months back and is worth a listen.)

But he seemed happy, content, almost grateful. He was already talking about making another record with a different group of players, including his son James Raymond. At last sight, he was signing autographs, posing for selfies and basking in the attention—living the late-Croz life. No doubt he was also puncturing someone’s opinion of something that night, but we wouldn’t have expected anything less.

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